One of the most controversial films ever made, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom has been re-issued by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray. So sought after was Criterion’s long out-of-print 1998 DVD release of the film, collector’s were paying up to five hundred dollars for a genuine copy. Now this disturbing critique of the corrupting properties of unchecked power is readily available in high definition. Whether you choose to witness the various atrocities portrayed in the film, vividly displayed in Criterion’s first rate transfer, depends largely on your tolerance for disgusting imagery.
Pasolini’s film was based on The 120 Days of Sodom, an incomplete novel written in 1785 by the Marquis de Sade. Pasolini set his adaption in the Salò Republic (officially the Italian Social Republic), which was a puppet state of Nazi Germany led by Mussolini during the final years of World War II. In the first act of the film, four powerful Italian dignitaries round up teenaged males and females and take them to a compound. Within the compound, the four men are accompanied by four women as they use the teenagers for whatever sadistic purposes they see fit. Young guards stand by throughout the compound, ensuring the young captives cannot escape. A strict atheistic agenda is imposed by the four dignitaries; even the mere mention of religion is punishable by death.
The controversy that has surrounded Salò (and resulted in its banning in numerous countries since its 1976 release) stems from the sexual degradation and torture that the dignitaries and their henchwomen subject the captive teenagers to. This covers a wide range of behavior, ranging from relatively simple forced sex acts to merciless murder. Perhaps most gag-inducing for many viewers is the banquet of human feces served to captives and captors alike midway through (with the latter quite enjoying the feast). Suffice it to say that this is a movie intended for a mature audience. The visuals, disturbing as they are, wouldn’t be so unnerving if not depicted in such a straight-faced, matter of fact manner. The dry, laconic (and sometimes gleeful) way in which the captors carry out their various tortures is why the film goes beyond mere shock value.
This 1080p Blu-ray edition of Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom lives up to the Criterion Collection standard. The initial 1998 Criterion release of Salò (on standard DVD) was in comparatively sorry shape. The image was cropped to a noticeable degree on both sides and a greenish tinge was present throughout. The high definition transfer on the new Blu-ray, framed at 1.85:1, includes the full image and accurate color timing. Clarity is, for the most part, superb. Grain appears natural and entirely appropriate for a film of this vintage. In short, the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli is beautifully represented. Criterion’s Blu-ray of Salò practically looks like a different film when compared to their older DVD.
The remastered audio is presented in mono, both in the original Italian language and the dubbed English tracks. The soundtrack is free of issues, with the dialogue crisp. Ennio Morricone’s score sounds relatively resonant and is well-balanced with the dialogue and effects. The English dubbing is surprisingly effective. It’s always a good idea to watch a foreign film in its original language, but if you want to concentrate on the imagery I think it’s great to have the dubbed track as an option.
Criterion’s supplements are useful as a deepen the viewing experience through a wealth of background information. Perhaps the best supplement isn’t even on the disc, but rather the eighty page booklet. There are seven essays in the booklet that interpret and analyze Pasolini’s film, helping shed light on why this troubling work is considered essential by so many. More than two hours of video features accompany the movie, including three excellent documentaries dealing with the making of the film as well as Pasolini’s death (he was brutally murdered before the film hit theaters). Interviews with the film’s production designer Dante Ferretti and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin are included as well.